Brutal comedy takes aim at doctors, patients and psychiatry in “Blue/Orange”
With doctors so beleaguered over the past two pandemic years, it’s hard to blame them.
But psychiatrists in particular have always been good enough targets for hyperbolic potshots.
English playwright Joe Penhall lashed out at them with a vengeance in his 2000 Olivier Award-winning work Blue/Orange.
Last seen locally in 2003 at The Old Globe, the play is now receiving a blistering production from the Fenix Theater Collaborative, formerly known as The Eastern. As Chief Artistic Director Justin Allen Slagle and Artistic Director and Curator of Vision Stephen Schmitz put it, the change (they call it a “rebirth”) was both geographically and dramatically necessary.
The Eastern auspiciously debuted in 2019 with the regional premiere of Harry Potter’s goofy/amusing riff, “Puffs: Seven Increasingly Hectic Years at a Certain School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.” (The show will return this summer, from July 7 to August 13). Their original intention was to produce theater in East San Diego County. But the lack of theatrical space in this area “meant the name was potentially more confusing than helpful”.
The pandemic gave them time to rethink their mission and they realized they had to “constantly reinvent themselves, not just this time.” Hence Fenix, with its suggestion of endless renewal. The spelling is “a nod to Spanish-speaking roots and San Diego place names and because, well, we’re really not located in Phoenix.”
So their latest effort, “Blue/Orange,” supposedly sarcastically humorous (and certainly exaggerated and cartoonish), posits the familiar claim that shrinks are as crazy as their patients.
Staged at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center in downtown San Diego, on an elevated square platform, with audience seating on three sides (the rest of the audience are in the ‘stands’), the drama to three figures, set in a London National Health Service sanatorium, could be seen, as when premiered in London, as a boxing ring.
Or, perhaps you could see him as a tripartite personification of Freud’s concepts of id, ego, and superego.
The patient, Chris (Xavier Carnell Daniels), admitted for a 28-day evaluation, has been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (i.e., straddling the line between neurosis and psychosis). With his antic, volatile demeanor and restless leg anxiety, you might see him as representing the id, the primitive, instinctive part of the mind that contains aggressive urges and hidden memories.
The superego functions as a moral conscience. Here it would be Bruce (Patrick Clark), a young doctor who follows the rules (same age as the patient, it turns out), in his first month of training. He is convinced that Chris might be a paranoid schizophrenic and that he should be given further evaluation instead of being sent off to who knows where.
The ego here (and boy, does he have one) is Robert (Charles Peters), the arrogant consulting psychiatrist who is Bruce’s supervisor and supposed mentor. Ego, according to Freud, is the sense of personal identity or feelings of personal importance.
Quoting haughtily from French poetry and Allen Ginsberg and “Hamlet,” Roberrt questions Chris’ diagnosis and discharge on race, arguing that the black community is often misdiagnosed by an institutionally racist system. Sounds reasonable, except he’s a total hypocrite and also keeps a close eye on the clinic results.
He wants Chris released to save money and he wants to take over the business so he can use Chris for the book he is writing which will hopefully make him a teacher and raise him among its most prestigious peers. Throughout, Robert is selfish, condescending, and disparaging.
Power dynamics are constantly changing. Each of the three men seems reasonable at one point, and each has a complete emotional breakdown at another.
Penhall makes the two doctors both unsympathetic and unprofessional: arguing about the patient in front of him, using and manipulating him for their own wants/needs.
There are questions of class, race, prejudice and clinical practice here. The audience is shaken about as much as Chris, who looks as confused as he is deceived.
Chris sees oranges as blue, and he reports that his father is either reviled Ugandan despot/dictator Idi Amin or revered boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
Daniels gives an utterly believable and explosive performance as Chris. As Bruce, Clark is more calm, reasonable, and empathetic – until he isn’t, once his career is threatened and he loses his temper. Peters’ Robert is a gliding shark, with the other two prominent characters as prey.
Under the tense direction of Kian Kline-Chilton, a recent graduate of San Diego State University, the tension is high, but the matchups are too close for comfort (or professional ethics) and the quick speeches and Bursts of shouting often make dialogue difficult. to understand. To complicate matters further, the cavernous, high-ceilinged space does the mic-less speakers no favors.
The set (Kristen Flores, Kian Kline-Chilton), sound (Remus Harrington, maybe a bit heavy on the heartbeat), spot lighting (Jerry Wooding) and costumes (Mayté Martínez) generally serve the production… but shouldn’t these doctors be wearing jackets (or white coats) and ties?
After all the posturing, pontifications, and menacing intimidation on stage, the audience is left uncertain and dissatisfied by the end (a problem of the play, not the production). Some details about English Healthcare escape us, but there are enough cross-continental similarities to keep us engaged, especially given our own problems since so many psychiatric establishments have been closed leaving thousands of mentally ill homeless people wandering around. the streets of America.
Although billed as a brutal comedy, the play doesn’t offer much to laugh about. The stakes are no joke – for doctors, patients (and prisoners!) of color, and the entire healthcare and psychiatric system.
- The Fenix Theater Collaborative Production of “Blue/Orangetakes place at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center, 903 10 the Avenue in downtown San Diego through April 16
- Performances are at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
- Tickets are all Pay What You Can. They are available at 619-768-3821 or fenixsd.org
- Walking time: 2 hours. (with intermission).
- COVID protocol: Proof of vaccination is required. Masks are optional for those vaccinated.
Pat Launer, a member of the American Theater Critics Association, is a longtime San Diego arts writer and Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of his previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.